Sunday, March 25, 2007

Guest Post: Huang Mei

Why did I become a physicist?

The day before I went back to my hometown for spring festival, I got an email from Stefan (I mean Dr. Scherer, my officemate from Frankfurt) that Sabine is inviting some physicists contributing to her Blog on the motives and the inspirations that had led them to study physics. They thought that my story might be interesting for Europeans and North Americans.

Physicists always ask and try to answer "why", but the question "why did I become a physicist?" is one of the most difficult questions I have met. I guess the most difficult task for us human beings is to understand ourselves, which should be the goal for biologists. Actually, being a biologist was even more attractive to me, but I chose to become a physicist, because to me a physical system and its evolution are much simpler than that of a biological one. We physicists always simplify problems, so today I will just focus on a linear equation with given initial condition and boundary condition, and leave the deeper question of "why" for future studies.

I am now a professional theoretical physicist in China. To me it was quite natural to become a physicist. When I was around 9 years old, my eldest brother brought to me the seed of being a physicist. What I did was just planting this seed in my mind, and making this seed sprout and slowly grow up.

I was born in a small village in a mountainous district of China. During that time, China was still in the latest stage of "culture revolution". I don't have any impression on culture revolution, but I still have memory about the People's Commune system. When I was five and half, my mother sent me to the preliminary school closest to my home. This school had only three classrooms and three teachers. My classroom was in very bad situation, its roof leaked whenever it rained. But I enjoyed going to school because I could find many friends playing games together. In the first two years, I didn't have any idea about what I was learning. Well, I learnt some Chinese characters such as "I love Beijing Tian-an-men", and I learnt counting from 1 to 100, and some basic calculating.

From the third grade year, I started to enjoy learning, especially mathematics. It was my father who really stimulated my interest in mathematics, and solving mathematical problems became the most interesting game in my childhood. Though from the third grade year, I became one of the best students in my class, I still didn't have any idea about my future, I also didn't have any idea about the world outside. I forgot to mention that in our village we didn't have electricity till the end of 1982, and we had the first TV set in the spring of 1986.

My eldest brother is one of the most important people in my life. In my forth grade year, he brought me a book about Marie Curie, a biography. He told me about the great woman scientist Marie Curie who twice won the Nobel Prizes, and he also told me about T.D. Lee and C. N. Yang who were heroes of our Chinese people. My brother learnt that in the cinema! He said that at that time, there was always a short documentary film about T.D. Lee and C. N. Yang before a movie began. My brother thought physicists are great. Therefore, when I was about 9 years old, even though I didn't have any idea about physics, I decided to become a great physicist.

I think the hero or idol plays rather important role in teenagers' life. Teenagers choose the direction of their future by choosing their heroes and idols, and they choose their heroes and idols by listening to their inner desires. The goal to become a great physicist was still too abstract and too far away for a nine year old little girl. There was a long journey to go?

Before I went to high school, my favorite subject was always mathematics. I enjoyed the happiness of solving all kinds of challenging mathematical problems, and analyzing and solving physical problems. My style was a kind of typical German style (of course neither my teacher nor I realized this) I enjoyed deriving everything logically and clearly step by step. (Hopefully physicists from Germany do not complain about this.)

It seems I was the only student in my class who continued physics study after high school. When I was sixteen and half years old, I became a student in physics department of Hua-zhong Normal University, which is in the capital city Wuhan of our Hubei province. I enjoyed very much the life in the university and also I enjoyed physics, especially quantum mechanics and statistics. I read more books on the history of modern physics, and I started to think some "deep" questions about the evolution of the universe and the microscopic world. Actually, I was more interested in self-organization of complex systems, but I started my career of research by investigating the QCD phase transition. There is a very good institute, the institute of particle physics (IOPP), in our university. The main research in IOPP is about QCD phase transition and heavy ion collisions. (In many ways, IOPP is very similar to ITP in Frankfurt.) Sometimes, professors from IOPP gave seminars for our undergraduate students, and we also had chances visit IOPP from time to time. I was very grateful to Prof. Liu, who was the director of IOPP and he spent much time and patience on me and my other two classmates. I started my graduate study in IOPP from the spring of 1994, and since then, I was on the right track of being a physicist. The story afterwards is just one straight line, so I am going to stop here.

Writing this article give me a chance to look back on my long journey of being a physicist. It was the great physicist like Marie Curie, T.D. Lee and C. N. Yang who motivated my dream of being a physicist. However, I think it is my inner desire which eventually drives me becoming a physicist. The simple answer to Sabine's question "why I became a physicist" is because I enjoy the happiness from understanding the unknown world, solving challenging problems and making discoveries. Sabine and Stefan, thank you for giving me such a chance! If you have plan visiting China, please drop me a message! I also hope to use this chance thank my eldest brother who turned out to be a manager in the bank though he dreamed to be a great writer. It is my eldest brother who brought me the seed of wisdom and provided me economic condition and spiritual support on my way of being a physicist.

Huang Mei is a 33 years old associate Professor at the Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. She mainly works on the many-body system of quarks and gluons. Currently, she is studying strongly coupled system by using AdS/CFT. In her free time she likes to do some sports, read books, listen to the music...

See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by

and my related guest post at Asymptotia 'Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration'.



  1. Dear Mei,

    thank you very much for your contribution, and the kind words, and the invitation :-). Who knows, perhaps we have one day a chance to come to China. The world is constantly becoming smaller...

    It's funny - we have shared office for quite a time, and even now, I can learn many new and interesting facets of the way that has brought you to Frankfurt!

    When I read your story, I am wondering, did you have a good teacher in physics in school, who encouraged you to do physics? Did you have some good classes in physics?

    Or do you think that the most important imetus for you towards physics came somehow from home, from your parents and family, and from the books you had been reading and found so interesting, as this Marie Curie biography?

    The interesting thing is, I mean, I have grown up under very different conditions in the 1970s in Germany, but it was also in a small village in a more rural area of the south-western part of Germany. And for me to study physics, definitely, the influence of my parents, and of books I have read, was much more decisive than that of our classes in physics in school. This may be similar to your history, and interestingly, to many of the histories we could read here! It seems that to take the road to study physics, one needs encouragement as a teenager, and this encouragement does usually not come from school.

    Best regards, Stefan.

  2. "why I became a physicist" is because I enjoy the happiness from understanding the unknown world, solving challenging problems and making discoveries. Sabine and Stefan, thank you for giving me such a chance! If you have plan visiting China, please drop me a message!

    Hi Mei, maybe you'll keep us informed of any developments and advances in China.
    Great Country with Great Potential!


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